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The Unlikely Secret Agent

The Unlikely Secret Agent

Ronnie Kasrils
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 192
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qftgw
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  • Book Info
    The Unlikely Secret Agent
    Book Description:

    Winner of South Africa's top literary prize, the Alan Paton Award, The Unlikely Secret Agent tells the thrilling true story of one woman's struggle against the apartheid system. It is 1963. South Africa is in crisis and the white state is under siege. One August 19th, the dreaded Security Police descended on Griggs bookstore in downtown Durban and arrest Eleanor, the white daughter of the manager. They threaten to break her or hang her if she does not lead them to her lover, Red Ronnie Kasrils, who is wanted on suspicion of involvement in recent acts of sabotage, including the toppling of electricity pylons and explosions at a Security Police office in Durban. But Eleanor has her own secret to conceal: she is, like Ronnie, a clandestine agent for the underground ANC and must protect her handlers and Ronnie at all costs. Astutely, she convinces the police that she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and, still a prisoner, is relocated to a mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg for assessment. It is here that she plots her escape. This remarkable story of a young woman's courage and daring at a time of increasing repression in apartheid South Africa is told here for the first time with great verve and elan by Eleanor's husband, Ronnie Kasrils, who eventually became South Africa's Minister of Intelligence Services in 2004.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-278-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. 1
    (pp. 1-3)

    Eleanor’s arrest on 19 August 1963 hit Durban’s literary world like a bombshell. No one expected that the daughter of the manageress of Griggs, the city’s best bookstore, and of a father who had a fine nose for an art deal, would be one of the first white women in the country to fall victim to the draconian detention laws that had just been passed by the National Party government.

    She was diligently at work in her mother’s bookstore when officers of the dreaded Security Branch (SB) strode into the premises to take her away for questioning. As the slender,...

  5. 2
    (pp. 4-8)

    Eleanor expected the police to take her to their central city headquarters. Instead they drove through the busy morning traffic to the outskirts of the city and into a low-income suburb called Wentworth, where people of mixed race struggled to make ends meet. It was there she discovered that the Special Branch were operating from a new building and that it was being used as an interrogation centre.

    ‘Dis ons Waarheids Huis [our House of Truth],’ Grobler told her in Afrikaans, as they got out of the car. ‘You tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the...

  6. 3
    (pp. 9-14)

    They grilled her all day. The team was led by Grobler, while Wessels simply acted as a back-seat observer. Eleanor noted that Grobler kept swallowing pills, possibly to curb high blood pressure, and indeed his face would become crimson at times with anger. From the line of questioning she realised that they knew far too much of the underground’s operations for her good.

    ‘Who apart from Kasrils visited the bookshop for messages and money?’

    ‘You ordered Che Guevara’s book on guerrilla warfare. Who did you give copies to? We want every name.’

    ‘When Kasrils and Billy Nair broke into the...

  7. 4
    (pp. 15-18)

    Eleanor was driven back through the city. When they arrived at Durban Central Prison, her heart sank because it was not the kind of place you felt you could escape from. Ninety-day detainees were instructed by the Movement to sit out their detention and, as a relatively new, disciplined member, Eleanor would have been ready to comply. But the instruction had already proved to be totally impractical as many cadres broke under interrogation and others had been accepting one-way visas into exile.

    The shock of realising that someone as senior and trusted as Bruno Mtolo was in all likelihood co-operating...

  8. 5
    (pp. 19-20)

    When Grobler arrived he was in a blind rage. ‘You bitch!’ he screamed. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

    He began shaking her roughly. Again he pulled her hair and started throttling her. This time she pretended to black out and collapsed in a heap. She heard them running about in a panic and then she was doused with a bucket of water. She allowed the tears to surface and began crying. She found this easy to do, and genuine tears rolled uncontrollably down her face. Grobler tried to pacify her. ‘Missis,’ he pleaded, ‘get a grip on yourself. Pull...

  9. 6
    (pp. 21-27)

    Back at the Wentworth House of Truth that second day, the interview was attended by a senior policeman, who was introduced as Major Frans Steenkamp. He watched quietly while Grobler and Malan, the burly one, handled the interrogation.

    ‘Come, missis, tell us what you know about the theft of dynamite at the Pinetown store,’ Grobler demanded. She stared back blankly. ‘Come on,’ he continued. ‘Kasrils took you with, when he reconnoitred the place. We know that from Bruno Mtolo. We know he later opened the dynamite safes once they were in the compound. But Kasrils had a key to the...

  10. 7
    (pp. 28-30)

    ‘You’d better eat something,’ Wessels advised her conciliatorily. ‘I am leaving with the Major, but I’ll tell the men to bring you something from the canteen. Not eating will affect your judgement and make you ill. Better eat.’

    They brought her a hamburger and soggy chips with a Coke and left her alone. She took a small sip of the drink and ignored the food. When they got back they enquired why she was not eating.

    ‘I repeat again: I will not eat because of this unjust detention and I will not eat until you charge or release me,’ she...

  11. 8
    (pp. 31-34)

    The interrogation was over for the day. She felt dirty and humiliated but kept telling herself that it was they who were filthy. Malan drove her back to prison accompanied by another policeman. But instead of taking her straight there, they drove her home, saying she could pick up some clothes and toiletries. She thought they were trying to placate her.

    She had been living with Ronnie in a small, single-bedroom cottage on the Florida Road, which ran up to the Berea heights above the sparkling city and harbour, not far from her parents’ elegant home where her daughter, Brigid,...

  12. 9
    (pp. 35-37)

    Now, just three months after that raid but seemingly a lifetime later, she was back at the cottage, which the Security Branch had ransacked. Books and clothing lay in untidy piles everywhere. The police had not, however, moved the bed and were obviously none the wiser about the trap door.

    They showed her a pile of books including two copies of Che Guevara’s book on guerrilla warfare. They said they were banned and would be confiscating them. When they told her she could be charged for having banned literature, she countered this by saying they could have been planted in...

  13. 10
    (pp. 38-44)

    They had met when the Royal Ballet Company was on a South African tour. Ronnie and his girlfriend had arrived from Johannesburg and were staying with Eleanor’s next-door neighbour, Wendy Beckworth, a renowned artist. It was the Easter of 1960 and the Sharpeville massacre had taken place a short time before, on 21 March.

    Eleanor knocked on Wendy’s door to invite her to the ballet that evening. She had two tickets but her husband was refusing to go. It wasSwan Lake. Wendy jumped at the chance.

    When Ronnie playfully remarked, ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned,’ Wendy replied instantly, ‘Oh...

  14. 11
    (pp. 45-47)

    ‘The trouble with this spot’, she heard Malan say, ‘is that theblerrie cooliesthink they own it. When is the government going to make this a no-go area for them?’

    The two security policemen were monitoring the occupants of the cars parked along the sea front and at the river mouth by the Blue Lagoon. Most vehicles appeared to contain couples watching the fishermen on the rocks above the raging surf. ‘I tell you,’ Malan muttered to his companion, ‘we got wind that the Jewboy was going to meet someone here tonight.Gaan kyk.’ The other man got out...

  15. 12
    (pp. 48-50)

    The days of interrogation at Wentworth went by. Though the place remained a charnel house of brutality, the Special Branch made absolutely no headway with her. She turned on the tears and was able to weep effortlessly. She did so quietly, allowing her body to tremble as though with cold and she took to mumbling, ‘This is unjust, this is unjust.’

    They were clearly disconcerted: large men, awkward around women, nervous with the responsibility of dealing with a frail, stubborn, crazy white girl on a hunger strike who might die on their shift. Even Grobler appeared to lose steam and...

  16. 13
    (pp. 51-61)

    The next day Grobler did not arrive at the usual time to fetch her for interrogation. This both pleased and worried her as she lay fully clothed on her bunk, hands behind her head, staring for the whole morning at the ceiling.

    She did not regret becoming involved in the ‘freedom struggle’. Once she had come in touch with the ANC, it seemed the most natural thing to do. While her relationship with Ronnie was the catalyst, her attraction to him only made it easier to come into contact with fellow South Africans whose whole life was dedicated to changing...

  17. 14
    (pp. 62-65)

    As she lay on her prison bunk, staring at the ceiling, waiting for Grobler to fetch her for interrogation, the questions kept nagging at her. How long could she withstand them? How long would these secrets be safe with her? Of course Bruno could tell them a great deal about the MK operations, but she had to hold out, particularly to defend the political leadership both in Durban and Johannesburg, for whom she had been a key secret link and underground courier. In fact she was a very secret agent whose role only Ronnie and a few leaders were aware...

  18. 15
    (pp. 66-70)

    At noon the wardress brought a placid-looking man to see her. He introduced himself as a psychiatrist and said the authorities were anxious about her and had called him in to examine her. After a medical examination in which he took her blood pressure and tested her reflexes, he asked her a series of routine-sounding questions. What was her name? What day of the week was it? Did she know where she was? She realised he was establishing whether she was compos mentis. When he asked if she knew why she was being detained, she let rip about the injustice...

  19. 16
    (pp. 71-74)

    The thought of the lock-up chilled her, and she watched intently as the security guard waved them through the outer gate. They drove through the spacious grounds, the manicured lawns, the well-trimmed shrubs, past row upon row of straight-lined, two-storey buildings.

    She thought of the similarity between the prisons, the military camps, the asylums of the country — even the railway stations with their well-ordered gardens — which were all laid out in similar fashion. It was as if someone with a compulsive mental disorder had meticulously arranged the cans in a cupboard in exact straight lines. It imposed the notion of...

  20. 17
    (pp. 75-79)

    Next morning Eleanor had to be coaxed out of her cell. She was petrified of having to mix with the inmates. Lying in her iron bed on a threadbare mattress, she listened to the sounds of their awakening as the thin light of dawn seeped into her strange new world. The mentally deranged were slow to awake, but like drunkards shaking off the after-effects of a night’s binge, their groans intensified as they became reacquainted with their inner demons.

    A nurse came to her cell just before 6 am and unlocked the door. She was shaking her head. ‘It’s a...

  21. 18
    (pp. 80-84)

    The man in charge of Fort Napier had the Orwellian title of Physician Superintendent. He arose from behind a magnificent oak desk, in his white coat, a portrait of the country’s Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd, smiling benignly like one of his patients on the wall behind him, and peered at her with some curiosity. This was the man referred to as the ‘Super’. She knew that his signature on a document could alter a person’s life for all time.

    Eleanor was delighted to find the psychiatrist from Durban present. He, too, was now dressed in the regulation white coat associated...

  22. 19
    (pp. 85-89)

    That afternoon Eleanor spent an enjoyable time playing rummy with her new-found friends. They were a quick-talking, street-wise group who had clearly lived their lives on the edge. Most of all, she was keen to hear their views about Fort Napier. But in the first place to explain why they were confined like common criminals in the lock-up.

    ‘Well, my heart,’ Swanny explained to her new best friend, while the cards were dealt. ‘We’ve all been in open asylums to try and dry out, but you know, if it’s easy to slip into town and get just the one drink...

  23. 20
    (pp. 90-95)

    Eleanor learnt over cards that the monthly event not to be missed was a dance involving males and females from the prison wards. A special concession was made for Eleanor when it was agreed that owing to her good behaviour she could go along to watch proceedings.

    Saturday after lunch, the females all lined up to get a dab of powder on each cheek and a smudge of red lipstick. There were oohs and ahs as they were made pretty as if for a pantomime, and they were allowed to wear their civilian dresses, which were generally cheap floral prints...

  24. 21
    (pp. 96-99)

    Rummy with Swanny and company had become her main form of relaxation and, she hoped, her life-line. All four women were permitted visitors although these were infrequent. Eleanor found an opportunity to raise with Swanny the possibility of a visit from a friend. Would she write a letter to a student named Rob at the university and invite him to visit a lonely woman who needed company? Eleanor banked on Rob reacting positively, if anything out of sheer curiosity. She was relieved when Swanny unhesitatingly agreed. Eleanor dictated a letter that ended: ‘Please come and visit. Either you or someone...

  25. 22
    (pp. 100-101)

    Eleanor did her best not to respond or reveal her shock. Fortunately they had folded the last of the newly laundered towels. She said she hoped the nurse would have a relaxed weekend and hastened away. Her heart was beating wildly and she was desperate to locate Precious, the African nurse who sometimes assisted in the lock-up section. Fortunately she had seen her little more than an hour before, attending to grocery supplies in the kitchen. In a state bordering on panic, Eleanor found her still there. This was the time to take her chance and she hoped her luck...

  26. 23
    (pp. 102-104)

    Eleanor hardly slept all night. Would the plan work? Would Precious be true to her word and unlock the rear door at six? Once out, would she be spotted walking through the grounds of Fort Napier?

    And what about the main gate? That would be the next big challenge. Could she get past the security guards or would they stop her? That prospect worried her particularly. But she had managed to steal a letterhead from Matron’s office. Tonight she would write a note indicating that she was a staff member and would append the Superintendent’s signature. She was sure that...

  27. 24
    (pp. 105-108)

    She half expected a trap, fearing that Grobler would be waiting for her. But there was the sheer relief of the early morning calm, the innocent chirping of birds and a powder-blue sky. Struggling to keep from running, she walked at a swift pace in the direction of the gate. She got a shock as a police car drove by but the uniformed man at the wheel paid no attention to her. She saw him dropping off a woman passenger at one of the hostels, execute a U-turn and head back to the exit. There were staff members walking in...

  28. 25
    (pp. 109-113)

    They drove straight to his house in a middle-class suburb, entering by way of the garage. It was a strange, almost dreamlike sensation, being in an elegant home after her five-week ordeal. All Eleanor wanted to do was collapse on a sofa with a cigarette and a cup of tea.

    ‘Oh Penny,’ she said to Pedro’s wife, ‘if you have Earl Grey I’d love that. Nice and strong. After Fort Napier I could do with a bit of TLC.’

    Penny embraced her warmly and told her she deserved all the ‘tender loving care’ in the world. But privately Penny was...

  29. 26
    (pp. 114-120)

    Eleanor tried shielding her eyes from the policeman’s torch. Even though they had taken the township route, they were stopped at a check-point after all. A second policeman on the driver’s side was shining his torch at Rob and enquiring in a suspicious voice why they were on the road ‘to the kaffir township’.

    ‘I’m afraid we’re lost, officer,’ he replied in a tense voice.

    ‘Where are you going?’

    ‘My young brother and I are on our way to a family wedding in Greytown. It’s tomorrow. We’re from Maritzburg. I’ve been trying to get to that road. I must have...

  30. 27
    (pp. 121-123)

    As Hugh had planned, they were duly on the road at three, cruising through the Zululand bush in the dead of night and reaching the main road to Johannesburg at a turnoff to the Transvaal highveld at 7 am. The traffic was soon building up with no sight of police or roadblocks. Eleanor became excited as they came to the outskirts of Johannesburg and she directed him to the densely stacked skyscrapers of Hillbrow. This cosmopolitan area was in proximity to the safe houses she had known. At her request he parked near a telephone booth as she made a...

  31. 28
    (pp. 124-127)

    The avuncular, silver-haired man hugged her warmly and spoke to her in his kindly manner, delighted by her escape. He reiterated its importance to the morale of the Movement. He spent over an hour listening intently to every aspect of Eleanor’s story – her experience in detention, the information she could provide about Bruno’s collaboration (which he regarded as important in preparing the legal defence for the Rivonia men) – and was utterly engrossed by the way she had planned and executed her escape.

    He only regretted that the country had to lose people like her and Ronnie. With the security crackdown,...

  32. 29
    (pp. 128-132)

    They soon received word from John that the time for departure had come. They had been told they would be disguised as a Muslim couple. Eleanor would have her appearance altered by an expert at the next stop, while Ronnie had already been growing a moustache and beard.

    ‘What about a bit of cross-dressing?’ she had joked. ‘You go as the Muslim lady and me as themolvi[priest]. Would you like that?’

    She cut his hair very short and dyed it black like hers. She instructed John to purchase a dark suit, a Muslim-style shirt with no collar from...

  33. 30
    (pp. 133-137)

    It was already late at night, as they travelled westwards on the Main Reef Road past the continuous belt of gold-mine dumps that lined the route. All the fugitives found it difficult to sit back and relax, and they peered constantly into the road ahead, imagining a police roadblock at every turn. Eleanor had lapsed into a deep silence and squeezed Ronnie’s hand until her knuckles were white. Julius First lit up another cigar, which did not help Eleanor’s mood and caused her to cough. She tried wafting the smoke away with her hands yet he paid no attention to...

  34. 31
    (pp. 138-146)

    By the time they reached the store Eleanor’s face was a sticky mess, Julius First was having palpitations and Ronnie’s arms were so seized with cramp that he could not straighten them. Their reception party consisted of two comrades who assisted them into the Land Rover. They gratefully accepted a water bottle to slake their thirst. As they drove off for the southern town of Lobatse, the relief coursing through their bodies, Eleanor began giggling like a little girl at the sight of Ronnie trying to stretch his arms. He, too, began guffawing at the sight of her runny make-up...

  35. 32
    (pp. 147-152)

    They arrived in Dar es Salaam – Arabic for ‘Haven of Peace’ – the following day to a boisterous reception from the ANC and met top leaders like Moses Kotane, J.B. Marks and Duma Nokwe, who were struggle icons. Eleanor received a bouquet of flowers from her friend, Maud Manyosi, leader of a nurses’ strike at King George V Hospital in Durban, who was now working in the ANC office. She was one of the growing number of members either being deployed in exile or going further afield for military training or to study in the professions. Eleanor had befriended her in...

  36. 33
    (pp. 153-156)

    The next day an ANC liaison officer took them to register at Home Affairs. They were soon seated in an office with two civil servants. One of them had a questionnaire and opted, with a pleasant smile, to take ‘Mama first’.

    He asked her full name, date and place of birth, name of father and mother, and so on.

    ‘What’s your tribe?’ was the next question.

    ‘Tribe?’ she said. ‘I don’t have a tribe.’

    ‘Everyone must have a tribe, Mama.’

    ‘Oh, well what about White South African?’

    He shook his head.

    ‘European?’ she volunteered.

    ‘No, that’s too general.’

    ‘I was...

  37. 34
    (pp. 157-161)

    They saw in the new year, 1964, at midnight from their favourite spot on the harbour wall. They had been quietly walking hand in hand in the evening after a stiflingly humid day. As the most eventful year of their young lives drew to a close, she had grown tense, thinking of home and the daughter who remained behind. The harbour, the palm trees, the clammy heat at the height of summer, reminded them of Durban, 3000 kilometres south. When the ships in the harbour sounded their foghorns to welcome in the New Year – as would be happening that very...

  38. 35
    (pp. 162-168)

    It was October 1964, almost a year to the day that she and Ronnie had arrived in what had now become Tanzania. She heard on the ANC grapevine – ‘Radio Potato’ – that he was back from training and was in one of the transit camps on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. When she asked Duma Nokwe whether she would have a chance to see Ronnie, he told her he would do something about it. First thing the following morning she heard Ronnie’s familiar voice on the office telephone. He told her he had risked sneaking out of the camp to...

  39. Appendix
    (pp. 169-183)